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|Contributor||Trinity Simone, Tim Roth, David Oyelowo, Ava DuVernay, Carmen Ejogo|
|Runtime||2 hours and 3 minutes|
David Oyelowo stars in this American drama directed by Ava DuVernay. Based on the Selma to Montgomery marches of 1965 that led to the passing of the Voting Rights Act, the film follows the story of James Bevel (Common), Hosea Williams (Wendell Pierce) and Martin Luther King Jr (Oyelowo) as they campaigned for their right to vote. As Luther King Jr led hundreds of like-minded people along the 54-mile highway from Selma to the Alabama state capital of Montgomery, they were met with violent conflict and brutal opposition and had to fight their way through to simply claim what was rightfully theirs. The cast also includes Cuba Gooding Jr, Tom Wilkinson and Oprah Winfrey. The film won an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Original Song.
- Aspect Ratio : 1.78:1
- Package Dimensions : 18 x 13.8 x 1.5 cm; 70 Grams
- Director : Ava DuVernay
- Media Format : Blu-ray, PAL
- Run time : 2 hours and 3 minutes
- Release date : 18 June 2015
- Actors : Trinity Simone, David Oyelowo, Tim Roth, Carmen Ejogo
- Studio : StudioCanal
- ASIN : B01A9R2LTQ
- Country of origin : Australia
- Number of discs : 1
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That was the game: democracy and rights for whites, knowing your place for blacks. Segregation was good for both sides. You have your patch, we have ours. But the dice were loaded, the game rigged and unfair and everybody knew it.
In 1863, 100 years before the girls were killed, Lincoln proclaimed the black population free during a civil war partly fought to achieve this. The Confederacy lost the war in 1865. The slaves were freed. But freed to do what? They still lived in the South. Their families and kin were there. It was what they knew, even if conditions were harsh. Many did not want to move, or had nowhere to go.
Freedom is fine in principle, but life doesn’t exist in a vacuum. An infrastructure for emancipation was needed. Re-education of the whites was necessary too, plenty of whom had learned nothing from the war. The South was defeated but not its ideas. Slavery was abolished but not the slaver mentality. The black man was now free to be neglected, to be unemployed, to live in poverty and shoddy housing. Free to sit at the back of the bus, to be excluded from hotels and restaurants, to be denied the right to vote. Free to have access to inadequate, underfunded schooling. Free to be intimidated, terrorized and lynched. Free to be unprotected by the laws and by those elected to enforce them.
How long? That was the question. How long does this evil go on? If a civil war couldn’t destroy it, what can? It had to be answered. The dynamics of the game made it inevitable. Rosa Parks was tired that day, she would later say. She had worked all day on her hands and knees. She was exhausted and wouldn’t shift herself to the back of the bus. She refused. She had reached her limit of endurance and compliance. Elsewhere blacks sat at lunch counters even when service was refused. The mood was shifting. A silent momentum was building.
Silent until a mighty voice began to be heard. He was a preacher at a Baptist church in Atlanta. He spoke from a pulpit that seemed like a mountaintop, a place close to God and all the angels. The voice boomed, the church shook with hosannas, hallelujahs, wailing. If he was their Moses, the Red Sea in Alabama ran from the town of Selma to the courthouse in Montgomery. He would lead his people to salvation there. He would give them the courage to defy hatred and bigotry. They would do it non-violently. They would symbolize civility in a place of brutality and barbarity. It would not be easy. There would be violence, injuries, maybe even death for some. But it had to be done. They had to make a stand and march. The time had come. The voice was heard. The question of how long had to be answered. This was their answer. History would begin in May 1965.
This film is about that march and how it happened. It’s about the eloquent Baptist preacher awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1964, and of others around him in the civil rights movement, including his wife Coretta and their family. He was the first President of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a position he held from 1957 until his murder in 1968. He’s the man whose birthday (January 15) is now a national holiday in the U.S., a man named after the leader of the Reformation in Germany in 1517. He is of course America’s Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., a man in my opinion who is greater than the country that produced him.
Key people in the movement surrounding Dr. King (and shown in the film) are Ralph Abernathy, Andrew Young, Amelia Boynton, Diane Nash, John Lewis, James Orange, et al. Then there are others beyond his immediate circle, including the gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, whose songs comfort Martin when he is down. One poignant scene in particular is deeply moving. It’s late at night and Martin can’t sleep, always so much on his mind. He calls Mahalia and asks her to sing to him over the phone. He knows his phone is bugged. He knows the FBI listens to everything he says. But he doesn’t care. She will sing to them too. The power of her voice may even teach them something significant and humane. She sings like an angel of course, and on the wings of that voice he is temporarily transported to Heaven.
Annie Lee Cooper is another strong woman in the story. She is played by Oprah Winfrey, who was instrumental as an executive producer in getting the film made. Annie Lee is dignified and determined. She wants to vote and tries to register in Selma, but every time she is turned down on absurd, illegal grounds (asked to recite, for example, the preamble to the U.S. Constitution or to play a game of trivial pursuit with the local clerk in naming the counties in the state of Alabama — nothing but outright intimidation in denying a U.S. citizen her constitutional right to register to vote). These hicks, these rednecks, are the problem. But they’re everywhere in Alabama and throughout the South. The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, is a proud bigot. Jim Clark, the Jim Crow sheriff of Selma, is just as bad. He’s more than bluster. He’ll swing a night stick if he has to. Man or woman, doesn’t matter. If the person is black, that person is the enemy.
Then there’s Washington, D.C., especially the egregious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover and Lyndon Johnson, the President by default in the wake of JFK’s murder in 1963. Johnson looks harried throughout, overwhelmed by events and people beyond his control: Vietnam, student unrest and demonstrations, the civil rights movement, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, the Black Panthers, etc., etc. He is under siege. He understands and appreciates Dr. King’s cause and supports it ethically, but will not commit politically. The Selma march is thus designed to force Johnson’s hand politically. Dr. King says only LBJ can sign federal legislation that forces voter registration in the South to be free and open. That’s the key: the vote. Without it the blacks will remain indentured to these white slavers in the South forever.
Dr. King is played by the British actor David Oyelowo whose family emigrated to Britain from Nigeria. For several years he studied the accent, speeches and speech patterns of Dr. King in the hope and off-chance that a biopic of the great man might one day be made. When audition time came, if it ever did, he would be ready. It did; he was. He embodies the Reverend King as well as any actor can be expected. A wise choice. However, Martin Luther King, Jr. was iconic, larger than life. We have seen and heard his speeches on video and know how he sounded. No actor, absolutely none, can duplicate this. Impossible.
I thought about King and James Baldwin’s first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953), while watching the film. Why this connection? Because Baldwin had been a teenage Baptist preacher in Harlem. The novel is all about that experience, the church, and his domineering father. Baldwin knew what King was like because he himself had once been like him. He was a product of the church. He knew the cadences of sermons delivered from the pulpit, its rhythms of call and response with the congregation. Black Baptist preaching wasn’t just a church service; it was a revival meeting, a gospel show, a communion with Heaven that shook the rafters of the church. Soul. Exactly that. That’s what these people had, and Baldwin writes of it well in his remarkable book. One paragraph, please. Because after reading it you will understand where Dr. King’s power, charisma and eloquence came from.
“On Sunday mornings the women all seemed patient, all the men seemed mighty. While John [the young preacher] watched, the Power struck someone, a man or woman; they cried out, a long, wordless crying, and, arms outstretched like wings, they began the Shout. Someone moved a chair a little to give them room, the rhythm paused, the singing stopped, only the pounding feet and clapping hands were heard; then another cry, another dancer; then the tambourines began again, and the voices rose again, and the music swept on again, like fire, or flood, or judgement. Then the church seemed to swell with the Power it held, and, like a planet rocking in space, the temple rocked with the Power of God. John watched, watched the faces, and the weightless bodies, and listened to the timeless cries. One day, so everyone said, this Power would possess him; he would sing and cry as they did now, and dance before his King.”
Yes, power and kingship. King was powerful because he had the Power. It’s so obvious when you hear him speak and watch what such speech did to others. Which is why he was dangerous, or thought to be, and made people nervous. Whites, that is. Insecure whites with much to lose, or much that was appropriated by them, stolen from black slave labour as well as from the original Americans, the true inhabitants of the land.
This is history yet it’s not, or not only that. A disproportionate share of the U.S. prison population is black (10 to 1, black to white, in some states). Unarmed young white men are not shot to death in U.S. streets by black policemen. That equation is reversed. Some black athletes now kneel (not stand) for the national anthem because they know it was written by a racist (Francis Scott Key) who damns himself in verse in the third stanza of the song, a stanza never sung in public (“No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave”). And even now in many states right-wing Republicans are doing their best to prevent persons of colour from voting via arcane, convoluted rules that are illegal but not yet struck down. So the march goes on because apartheid in America never truly goes away, the myth of race still embraced by some despite what science and the Human Genome project know and teach (to those who wish to learn).
Truly fine film, utterly relevant, then as now. Progress has been made of course, but as with everything it has to be protected and passed on with dedication and vigilance.
The film explores how that act came into being. Under the pressure of a strong peaceful movement organized and led by Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Alabama. The movement came from the local black people who had been organized by some young black people from Selma itself. Martin Luther King was only asked to come into the picture because the local people needed someone to go and speak to the President himself. And Martin Luther King had just receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Johnson refused at first to deal with the voting problem of the blacks. He had more urgent business to run: his famous law on welfare and poverty and his war in Vietnam. King did not take no for an answer and he went to Selma to organize things with the locals. The reaction from the whites was superbly racist and violent. The governor, the famous Wallace, was entirely against changing traditions and he even asked the President to send troops or other forces to keep peace in the streets.
Johnson actually refused and Martin Luther King managed to get the attention of the national media. Then it was only a question of patience and endurance. They went to court to claim their right to peacefully demonstrate on a constitutional question like the right to vote written in black and white in the 13th and 14th amendment plus quite a few laws. The surprise came from the white judge who had to be a federal judge since it was a federal constitutional matter. The judge decided that the Blacks had the right to demonstrate to request the implementation of their federal constitutional right.
Then the battle was won. A massive demonstration was organized and the state of Alabama did not provoke any violence. Then within weeks the act about the matter was passed by Congress and signed by Johnson into law. This final demonstration enables the producers of the film to get history back on the screen with some of the TV coverage of the time in black and white.
This film is important historically, is well made and well acted. But this film is all the more important because it really starts with a bomb that kills four girls in their home. Thank you Ku Klux Klan! And the killing of a young demonstrator by a cop with his firearm. Thank you racist police and sheriff! This film was shot in 2014 and at the same moment in Ferguson, and then many other places a whole series of young male blacks were killed by police forces with their firearms or their physical brutality or lack of assistance to dying prisoners.
In other words in a way the film tells us history repeats itself if we do not keep up with the various issues encountered in life and make sure the solutions found now will hold later. This violence against young male blacks is typical of that necessity as much as typical of the vicious racism that is developing or that is cultivated in various local police forces in the USA, no matter what race these policemen or policewomen may be. They seem to believe that young male blacks are the inner enemy of the welfare of the nation, at least of their little patch of the nation.
As such, this mixture of history and present politics is a good point for a film on the subject.
A last thing has to be said. Martin Luther King Jr. was shown as a person who doubted a lot before coming to his decisions and actions. At times his decisions and actions were taken in some ritual way that lets us think he wanted us to believe he got in touch with God and got his advice. That attitude is surprising and yet is part of his prudence, a cautiousness that wants to be reassuring by being staged properly, that is to say with some religious dimension.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU